Devs weigh in on eSports: Good for the big guys, rough for the small guys

eSports are clearly a viable business. But for what sorts of companies are they viable? And for how long? GDC's State of the Industry report shows us what game devs think of the matter.

As part of our continuing expansion of the Game Developers Conference State of the Industry report (download it for free here), we take a closer look at eSports. From the Capcom Cup's inclusion at the PlayStation Experience to League of Legends' impressive competitive viewership numbers, eSports are clearly a viable business. But for what sorts of companies are they viable? And for how long?

We combed through hundreds of anonymous responses from the more than 2,000 developers that answered the State of the Industry survey to give you a picture of what the game industry thinks of the business of eSports in 2016.

The positive

We'll start with a bit of anecdotal knowledge. Live events seem to be a good way to build hype, and one of our commenters agrees. “Working in live event productions, I know a lot of people who are trying to break in across all levels,” they said, specifically referencing anything from 150 to 15,000 capacity venues.

Others appreciated the way it at least appears to level the playing field. “It's the same as traditional sports,” said one reply, “but after watching a game, a player can go and play exactly the same game in exactly the same environment. It's far more democratized.”

"The day my oldest son ran home to watch the LoL championship reminded me of when I was a kid running home to catch the Super Bowl."

A more impassioned older developer feels that the younger generation has already solidified eSports' presence in the industry. “Gaming has taken on a whole new level of entertainment with each new generation,” they said. “Kids are growing up with games as part of their daily lives from infancy. That means that what our generation sees as a fad or something that will not 'take off' usually never holds true. The same was said about television when radio was the prominent way people were entertained. eSports are just a natural progression of how gaming is evolving with each new generation. The day my oldest son ran home to watch the LoL championship reminded me of when I was a kid running home to catch the Super Bowl. These are new, exciting times.”

And there were many who simply got caught up in the legitimate hype brought by these large spectacles. “I would say that Riot Games opened some big doors to the eSports around the world,” said one developer. “In the past i never though that this area could increase so fast and hit so many people around the globe, but right now, I have [the] will and hope to be part of that big community of players and developers.”

Still others took a more pragmatic approach to the idea, saying eSports would succeed “for the same reasons that sports are long term and sustainable. People enjoy the spectacle and fanfare of competitions on a large scale. I think individual games and genres may wax and wane in popularity though.”

Lastly, this effusive claim; “Are you kidding? StarCraft is the national sport of South Korea. Look at Killer Queen for an example of a grassroots eSport.”

The negative

Not everyone believes in the power of eSports. More accurately, many believe that eSports are the realm of the privileged few, and that small teams have a hard time breaking in.

“It's risky to get into and to start,” said one developer. “You can't make a game around the notion that this will be a big eSport, it depends on the community. You need to support that community and let it flourish for a game to truly become an eSport.”

"Unless the masses look at it other than a hobby it will never take off, even if the prizes are in the millions."

Many of our commenters mentioned the fact that eSports appears to be dominated by a few big players. “Players gravitate to the big games,” said one developer, adding “so I don't think it is good long term, but maybe good short term.”

Others said that eSports was too homogeneous in its playerbase, and needed to evolve in order to become sustainable. “The userbase interested in eSports is growing, but needs to advance past the insular community it currently gets,” said one dev. “The mainstream is not necessarily interested in League of Legends tournaments, but may be more interested in sports games or FPS tournaments, certainly in the West.”

Others feel that the industry needs to elevate games to a higher plane before they can be taken seriously. “Unless the masses look at it other than a hobby it will never take off,” said one developer, “even if the prizes are in the millions. It's like chess is today, people around the world enjoy it, but it's nothing [in which] the whole USA would want to watch the best player play.”

The middle ground

Unsurprisingly, there were a number of developers who were on the fence. To begin with, making a sustainable eSport is no easy task, as one developer says: “Yes, the fan base is there, but making a sport that's fun to watch, easy enough to play, but have enough depth for intense competition is a real challenge.”

Another dev expanded on the difficulty, saying, “For some it is [sustainable], for most it's not. eSports, just like real sports, need a large pool of players to be sustainable long time and only a handful of esports games will be able to attain that at any time. If your name is Valve, Riot, or Blizzard, it's absolutely sustainable, otherwise it's almost an impossibility.”

"If your name is Valve, Riot, or Blizzard, it's absolutely sustainable, otherwise it's almost an impossibility."

This line was held by a number of others, as this person added, somewhat optimistically, “I don't think there's space for many to be successful, but I feel that eSports have already proven themselves in at least South Korea. I also feel LoL and Dota will be going strong for at least a few more years, but likely longer if they are not replaced by new games.”

One commenter wanted a greater regional relationship. “The reason sports does so well is because it 'represents' the town the teams play in,” they said. “Maybe there could be some way in the future to have teams represent areas or places they would be proud of. National Leagues, Global Leagues, etc.”

Lastly, one developer decried the lack of support some developers give their potential eSports successes. "[Super Smash Bros. Melee] is an excellent example of a game purely supported by its fan base,” they said. “You have famous players, big tournaments, etc. A huge opportunity missed by Nintendo. Capcom on the other hand is doing a great job with Street Fighter.”

The weird

Not everyone gets eSports, and that's fine. Here are some of the more amusing responses.

“Kids are into mobas, I dont get why,” said one commenter. “Must be the 'sick plays.'”

Another asserted, randomly, “Anybody who calls it 'e-sports' should get a life.”

And lastly, let's not forget that old workhorse, in one developer's own words: “I'm too old to understand.”

(Download the entire GDC State of the Industry report here.)

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